29 months ago I explained a common reason why certain films are nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. It’s “because of the resonance and universality of their themes. And the themes that always seem to register more than others are contained in personal journey movies about growth, redemption and transformation.” Or because they make the old 3D formula — desire, deception, discovery — seem true and real in a newish way.
What, then, are this year’s Best Picture Oscar contenders saying in a thematic, this-is-our-life-and-this-is-who-we-are sort of way? Here, right or wrong, are my summaries:
127 Hours is basically saying that no man is an island, that arrogance always leads to a fall, but if you meet a traumatic threat head-on and somehow survive you’ll be much stronger for it, and that you’ll feel a wonderful tidal surge of “isn’t life grand?” when you realize you’ve escaped death. Basic slogan: Anyone who thinks he/she is Superman will find out sooner or later that he/she is not.
Black Swan is saying that being wound too tight and overly competitive and agitated about your creative competitors…actually, it’s not saying that. It’s saying that if a director keeps things close and real and Roman Polanski-like and tones down the CG and cranks up the Tchaikovsky and lays on the lezzy sex, he’ll have a hell of a good film on his hands. Basic slogan: It’s hard to go wrong with Darren Aronfosky at the helm.
The Fighter is saying that family is not always the end-all and be-all. It says that almost every family has a damaging parent. It also has a brother or sister who are hugely delusional and/or damaged and draining the spirit of those family members who are trying to live focused, balanced and productive lives. And yet at the end of the day, family members do watch out for each other. Basic slogan: Life is rough and hard and messy, so you need people you can trust.
Inception is saying that Christopher Nolan has a wow-level imagination and the support of a corporate-connected studio to make those imaginings come true. Basic slogan: The real drama in anyone’s life is buried in their subconscious.
The Kids Are All Right is saying that lesbians are just like anyone else, and that marriage can be a bitch and a marathon and is no piece of cake. Basic slogan: We’re all regular folks under the skin.
The King’s Speech is saying that degrees and pedigrees don’t matter all that much, and that bright, resourceful Average Joes sometimes know a thing or two that can really help high-born fellows who have everything. Basic slogan: Smarts, perception and wisdom sometimes come in unlikely packages.
The Social Network is saying that nobody nices their way into the big-time, that gold does things to men’s souls, and that (a) genius and (b) loyalty, friendship and decency are two different games that don’t necessarily overlap. People with big brains live in their own realm and are sometimes less trustworthy than people with medium or smaller-sized brains. Such is the way of exceptionalism. Basic slogan: Watch your back, jack.
Toy Story 3 is saying that it’s hard when your usefulness has run its course, and thank God for about-to-be-college students who remember what it was like to be a kid. Basic slogan: Cherish and hold onto the heart and the imagination that you knew in your childhood.
True Grit is saying that being tough and smart and feisty doesn’t mean you wont lose your arm or wind up living a life without a lover or a husband, but if you get bitten by a snake it’s good to have a pot-bellied old dog like Ruben Cogburn looking out for you. Basic slogan: the Coen brothers are the best — they always know what they’re doing.